Sunday, 1 April 2012

Surrendering to the Shrimpers

My son Luke is six years old and getting to that age where his interest in football is growing, despite his Mum's best efforts, yet much to my delight.
He has memorised our fixtures for the rest of the season (and what colours our opponents play in), knows where we are in the league table, and so on. Yes, he is definitely my son...
Every Sunday, he asks me the same question. As soon as I go to pick him and his sisters up, he says 'Who won the game, Dad?', accompanied by much excited jumping around.
Most of the season, I have been telling him about wins, or draws, but lately it has not been so good, and today, I had to break the news to him that it finished Southend 4, Cheltenham 0.
Cue one crestfallen six-year-old, yet after a pause for thought, out came the perfect summing up...
'That was a bit rubbish then, wasn't it Dad?'. Get him on the radio instead of that other bloke, I hear you cry.
Difficult to argue with that, isn't it? Maybe I should end the blog there...
But then, after another thought, he added: 'Are they ever going to win again?'.
The million dollar question. To be honest, if he had asked where babies come from it might have been a bit easier to answer.
Mad though it may seem after a run of four and a bit games without a goal and no win in six, I was actually quite confident as I drove to Southend, as they have not been in great form either recently.
The omens should have been there really. I had to divert round an accident at Birdlip, went to wrong way round the M25 (south instead of north), got stuck at the Dartford crossing then missed the turn-off to Southend. I either need to buy an atlas or a sat-nav...
I had no complaints about the team sheet, Kaid has been at his best away from home, and Steve MacLean dropping out, and I expected either a diamond with Russ Penn at the top, or an orthodox 4-4-2.
So I was a bit surprised when we went back to 4-5-1 and had Darryl Duffy on the right hand side, looking for him and Kaid to support Ben Burgess.
I thought it was a little cautious. It seemed that we were going to try and play on the counter attack rather than really have a go at them and carry on from where we left off last weekend, when Darryl and Ben had linked up quite well.
It left Darryl with the job of running the channels, and that is not his job - we brought the target man in as we know Darryl works better with him, then put him out on the right. A strange one for me. As it was, Darryl only had to do the job for 20 minutes.
We had started ok, no more than that, with Ben winning some headers and were just settling down when Sido was sent off. After that, Ben was isolated on his own, and if I am honest I would have taken him off then and left Darryl on.
We probably should have expected something like red card to happen with Trevor Kettle in the middle, but even he had little choice after Sido's poor challenge.
Top player yes,  but Sido has been guilty this season of a few rash challenges, resulting in penalties, free-kicks and heart-in-the-mouth moments.
This challenge was rash, studs up, two-footed (according to the highlights I have seen) and late. He caught Michael Timlin right in front of Mr Kettle and that was that.
Darryl was sacrificed for Keith Lowe, and so we went to 4-4-1. Time for some application, resolve, grit and backbone.
We showed that for about nine minutes until we conceded the first goal, a sloppy one from a corner we didn't clear and after losing the second ball a cross came in and Kane Ferdinand glanced it in.
That was that. From that moment on, there was only one way we were going, and that was to defeat - it was a case then of how many Southend were going to get.
At times, we kept our shape, two banks of four, and restricted Southend to long shots - but even that was our downfall just before half-time.
I had just thought 'let's get to half-time at 1-0' when Ryan Hall shot home the second.
From the radio box, there is a pillar right in the way and when I saw Jack Butland dive one way and the ball go straight through and in off his foot, I assumed there must have been a deflection somewhere in the part of the box covered by the pillar.
Not so. Jack, you should have saved that one, and that goal, if it was needed, was more confirmation of our impending defeat.
All I wanted to see now in the second half was that grit, application and backbone I spoke about earlier. A bit of pride.
Sorry, but until the 88th minute when the game was gone, we didn't get any of that.
The half started with a curious substitution, Josh Low for Russ Penn. Unless there was an injury, I couldn't see the reasoning for that change - although Josh didn't do too badly when he came on.
We got a disjointed, shapeless, at times shambolic display from a team feeling sorry for themselves after being down to 10 men - and it was refreshing to hear the manager admit as much afterwards rather than looking to hide behind the 'we had 10 men' excuse.
In many cases, when a side goes down to 10 they are galvanised. Plenty of times you see the 10 men become the better side, rally together and have a real go despite the handicap. Not here.
Southend were attacking us at will. They made good use of the width of the pitch, their central midfielders however had it all too easy, and we got off lightly with four.
The third goal was another poor one. A ball upfield, Alan Bennett was favourite for it, but Freddy Eastwood simply wanted it more. He got it, turned Benno and his shot was deflected in.
When you see your captain beaten so easily like that, you know it's going to be an uphill last 40 minutes.
I do not know what had happened to Benno but he is struggling for form and confidence. As the captain and leader, you need him to find it again, and fast.
I will credit Jack for two good saves, but he dived over the fourth from Bilel Mohsni, another long-range effort, and re-ignited the debate about our goalkeeping position.
During the game, we had 45 texts in to BBC Gloucestershire.
Many of them were calling for Scott Brown's return on Friday (that must be a first - CTFC fans wanting Browny to play...), and Mark Yates has a massive decision to make.
Jack was brilliant earlier in the season, and his arrival co-incided with our brilliant run of form before he left after the Southend home win.
In came Scott, but he was always looking over his shoulder as he knew Jack - billed universally it seemed as the saviour of our season - was still on the radar for a return.
Sure enough, back came Jack, out went Scott, and things have not panned out how we all hoped.
It was an easy job for Jack to come into a side playing with confidence, and he only added to that - now he has come into a side with no confidence at all, and he looks like what he is, an inexperienced 19-year-old goalkeeper with 20-odd league games behind him.
In his first spell, we didn't look like conceding goals, and it was a surprise when we did. Now, every time the opposition come over the halfway line, it is heart-in-mouth time.
We had a couple of chances in the last few minutes, Kaid and Marlon Pack with headers, but it didn't matter by then, and the goal drought extends to 525 minutes, in which time 13 goals have gone in the other end.
So that's March. Played 7 Won 0 Drawn 2 Lost 5 For 3 Against 15 Points 2 (out of 21). Eek.
Thank goodness that's over.
We knew March would define our season. We knew it would be the difference between automatic promotion and the play-offs, and so it has proved, but not in the way we had hoped.
The conspiracy theorists have been out in force.
Conspiracy one - It's the Spurs game's fault for taking away our focus. That was in January, since then we have won a few games, but this run is two months later. On the other hand, three our four wins since then were against Macclesfield and Burton, who were on terrible runs, and a poor Dagenham.
Conspiracy two - The trip to Portugal after the Spurs game has taken away our focus. See above.
Conspiracy three - Jermaine McGlashan's arrival for a fee and on decent money has upset the dressing room. Firstly, we don't know for sure a) how much he cost and b) how much he earns, and anyway he has hardly figured in this recent run of games anyway. More of that later.
So what now? Well, forget the top three. It's gone, bar one of the most amazing turnarounds in form ever - ie six wins for us and some dropped points elsewhere. Not going to happen.
Now, it is about staying in that top seven with Crewe, Gillingham and maybe even Aldershot ganging up behind us.
We start against Barnet on Friday, and Sido's absence and Marlon getting a two-match ban for 10 bookings (the last one on Friday which was totally brainless by the way) means things will have to change.
Keith Lowe will come in for Sido, but Marlon's absence will surely mean 4-4-2 or a diamond, and will see the likes of Junior Smikle and Jeff Goulding back in the 16, while Harry Hooman will presumably be on the bench to cover the back four.
Ironically, one of our best performances recently was at Macclesfield - the only game which Junior has started this season, and he played at the point of a diamond, and Jeff Goulding also played well and scored that day...
So, what side would I play against Barnet on Friday?
I feel that Scotty has to come back in goal. Rather in the way that Robert Green paid the price for his howler in the last World Cup, I think Yatesy has to take Jack out of the firing line.
Yatesy has been ruthless this season - Keith Lowe and Danny Andrew were taken out of the side almost overnight, and he has to do it again here.
Defensively, Keith Lowe will play, and I cannot see any changes to the other three, Benno, Steve Elliott and Luke Garbutt.
So the midfield, and I think I would go for an orthodox 4-4-2, with Russ and Summers in the middle, Kaid and the left and Jermaine coming in on the right, with Ben and Darryl up front.
The bench would be Harry, Josh Low, Jeff, Junior and Steve MacLean.
Apart from the Butland/Brown dilemma, a lot of the texts to BBC Glos on Friday were about Jermaine - why is not playing as he has been in the Team of the Week a few times, why did Yatesy not bring him on, why pay money for him and not pick him, why sign a target man and not play an orthodox winger etc etc.
All valid points... and I can understand why Yatesy didn't bring him on at Southend. Down to 10 men and looking to keep shape is not really the game for a 'flair' player, but the other questions are for the manager to answer.
There are games when I feel he could have started or come on, but he has to play Jermaine on Friday, as we have to go for it, at the start of our 'six cup finals' as we look to prevent what could have been a great season, one of our best ever, ending with a whimper.
We know what these players are capable of. They don't need telling that they have fallen below their ability and the standards they have set  - so the abuse directed at Marlon Pack on Twitter is totally out of order.
When I showed pundit Luke the league table, he said 'They look rubbish Dad, we should beat them shouldn't we?'. Two months or so ago, I would have said yes. Now I am not so sure.

Player by player
Jack Butland - Two horror goals let in, and has to be taken out of the firing line I'm afraid.
Sido Jombati - Rash, late challenge and deserved his red. Needs to learn he can't tackle like that.
Luke Garbutt - Form has dipped. Letting too many crosses into the box.
Alan Bennett - Another error cost us a goal. Not the skipper he was in the Autumn.
Steve Elliott - Battled against Moshni but it was an uphill fight.
Russ Penn - Started OK, but then had to play wide right. Taken off at half-time in a strange change - unless he was injured.
Marlon Pack - Brainless booking for dissent means he misses the next two games. Be interesting to see how we cope without him.
Luke Summerfield - Looked lost in the second half as they over-ran us far too easily. Another whose form has dipped badly.
Darryl Duffy - Asked to play wide right, not his position, before being sacrificed.
Kaid Mohamed - Tried to keep running at them to relieve the pressure - but gave the ball away for the first two goals.
Ben Burgess - Thankless task after the red card. Won some flicks early on but was then practically out of the game. I would have taken him off after the red card.

Substitutions
Keith Lowe (for Darryl Duffy 21 mins) - Like Garbs, too many crosses came in from his side.
Josh Low (for Russ Penn, 45 mins) - Can't understand why he came on, but I thought he did OK.
Jimmy Spencer (for Ben Burgess, 69 mins) - Few decent touches and set up a couple of late chances.